Published September 23, 2003
AL-SAJR, Iraq – U.S. soldiers backed by helicopters firing rockets attacked a farmhouse Tuesday, killing three Iraqis and wounding three others, villagers said. The U.S. military said soldiers followed suspected guerrillas into this village after a patrol was ambushed.
Afterward, five craters ranging up to 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep could be seen in the courtyard of the farmhouse. A sixth rocket had crashed through the roof. The yard was strewn with broken glass and a wall on one side of the building was pocked with bullet holes.
The fighting in Al-Sajr, a small village west of Baghdad (search), highlighted the difficulties of combating guerrillas in populated areas and was likely to deepen resentment of the U.S. occupation in an already volatile region.
"There never was any trouble in our village and the Americans have never been inside it," one of the wounded, retired army Sgt. Abed Rasheed, told The Associated Press at Fallujah General Hospital (search). "This is not about overthrowing a government or regime change."
The U.S. military confirmed a combined air-ground assault took place here but said it knew of only one death -- that of a guerrilla fighter. A military spokeswoman, Spc. Nicole Thompson, said that after firing on an American patrol, the attackers ran into a building. She said the soldiers then called in air support.
Villagers insisted no one had fired on the Americans. They did say that U.S. soldiers detained three young men during a security sweep Sunday.
Residents said the Americans appeared in the village about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday and began firing with light weapons. Villagers later heard aircraft approaching.
Soon afterward, six missiles struck the home of Ali Khalaf Mohammed, killing the 45-year-old farmer. Two of Mohammed's sons, aged 11 and 9 years, were wounded.
Villagers said two other men -- Saadi Fayad and Salem Ismail -- were killed after they rushed to Mohammed's house to offer assistance.
Mohammed's 48-year-old brother, whose first name is also Mohammed, said a U.S. officer came to the house about 9 a.m. Tuesday to inspect the damage. He said the officer, speaking through an interpreter, apologized and said "We are here to protect you."
"I replied 'If this is your protection we don't need it,"' the brother said. "The Americans think we are protecting Saddam's people, but in our village we never even liked Saddam." He did not recall the name of the officer.
Al-Sajr, nine miles north of Fallujah (search), is part of the so-called "Sunni Triangle," an area north and west of Baghdad where support for Saddam Hussein runs deepest and where American troops have met their stiffest resistance since the collapse of his regime in April.
During funerals for the three Tuesday afternoon, villagers and relatives wept and cursed the Americans.
"Why? Why?" screamed Jouri, Mohammed's oldest sister, as some 250 male villagers prepared to bury the victims in al-Sajr's dusty cemetery. "Why are the Americans doing this to us," she shouted as she beat her chest and head with her hands. Two dozen women screamed and wailed in unison.
"May God's curse fall upon the Americans, for they have no fear of God," said Mohsen Herish, a cousin of Mohammed. "Are these American human rights?"
At the hospital, Rasheed, the retired Iraqi officer, who was wounded in the chest and feet, said he was asleep with his family on the roof of his house when he heard small arms fire. He ran downstairs just as the American aircraft roared overhead, firing what he believed were rockets.
Mohammed's 11-year-old son Hussein lay in his hospital bed, dressed in a blood-soaked gown. His brother Tahseen, 9, was in a bed nearby, his face swollen from facial cuts. His right thigh had shrapnel wounds.
The soldiers involved in Tuesday's incident were from the 82nd Airborne Division, the same command that mistakenly killed eight Iraqi policemen and a Jordanian guard Sept. 12 in Fallujah. In April, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne shot dead 18 and injured 78 on two successive days, also in Fallujah. In both cases, the U.S. military said the soldiers were fired on first. A senior U.S. Army officer is leading an investigation into the Sept. 12 shooting.
In Baghdad, Iraq's U.S.-picked Governing Council issued a decree Tuesday temporarily barring journalists from two of the Middle East's most popular Arab satellite news channels from government buildings and news conferences. The council said it suspected that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya television were aware of attacks on American troops before they occurred.
The ban will remain in effect for two weeks, the council said in a statement signed by the acting president, Iyad Allawi.